Is K-Rod worth a minimum of five years and 75 million dollars? In what would easily be the largest deal ever given to a closer, Francisco Rodriguez’ deal will likely set the gold standard for the next generation of closers. On Metsgeek.com, Mets fans’ discussions have been sounding more like those of partisan politicians rather than baseball fans in their passionate support or rejection of giving K-Rod the pot of gold and the rainbow, to boot.
From an organizational standpoint, the Mets’ breaking the bank for a closer is misguided for a number of reasons. And while many of those reasons have been mentioned, one easily stands out to me as an overlooked.
First, the obvious:
Billy Wagner’s $10.5-million salary in 2009 is not covered by insurance, meaning the Mets will be on the hook for every penny. Obviously, with the Mets being a major market ball club, this will not mean quite as much as it would if they were a small- or mid-market franchise. However, $10.5 million, plus K-Rod, would mean dedicating between 15-20% of the Mets’ 2009 payroll on the closer spot. Signing K-Rod at $15 million in addition to Wagner’s $10.5 million dedicates an astounding $26.5 million to the closer role. By comparison, the highest paid closer in baseball is currently Mariano Rivera, at $15 million annually. If that’s not enough, K-Rod will likely earn close to $200,000 per inning through the life of his next deal (75 IP/15 million per season). That’s the equivalent of an entire season of Daniel Murphy or Eddie Kunz until arbitration for two to three innings of K-Rod. This factoid will become even more important later in the piece.
The second argument is declining peripherals, namely strikeouts and hits allowed which are red flags to some Mets fans. Frankly, I feel the peripheral argument is vastly overblown since he really only allowed four extra hits than in 2007 while throwing an additional inning. Yes, he did strikeout 13 less batters over that same span, but throwing thirty less pitches in 2008 than in the previous season while working a greater number of innings is hopefully a sign of things to come. The real knock against K-Rod is the fact that he is simply inefficient with the number of pitches he throws. This, combined with his violent delivery, makes him an injury risk. Between 2002 and 2008, K-Rod threw about 160 more pitches in big league games than Mariano Rivera. Not a big deal right? Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s 2002 season included only 92 pitches after being called up, so he has essentially thrown an extra seasons worth of pitches compared to Rivera since entrenching himself in the Angels’ pen. This added wear and tear on his arm serves as a much bigger issue going forward than a baker’s dozen less strikeouts or so per season.
While both of these arguments hold some validity, the overlooked piece of the equation is the Mets drafting a boatload of bullpen arms early in the 2006-2008 drafts. Currently, the Mets minor league system is in the bottom ten in terms of overall talent which is a direct result of this strategy and leaves the Mets vulnerable in a number of ways including:
1. A lack of depth making deadline deals difficult
2. Overall inability to develop players within the organization
3. Inability to develop players internally leading to trades out of necessity or a great number of free agent signings
4. Loss of draft picks due to said free agent signings
Need proof? Between the first and fifth rounds of the 2006-2008 draft, the Mets signed the following guys who profile as likely bullpen arms. As I stated earlier, if and when the players below not named Smith or Kunz make the bigs, the rookie minimum contract each receives over a full season will be equal to two to three innings of K-Rod.
2006: Joe Smith, 3rd round
2006: John Holdzkom, 4th round
2006: Stephen Holmes, 5th round
2007: Eddie Kunz, Supp. 1st round
2007: Brant Rustich, 2nd round
2007: Stephen Clyne, 3rd round
2008: Bradley Holt, Supp. 1st round
Bradley Holt is included on this list as Baseball America viewed him as player whose best role would likely be in the bullpen. They also published a breakdown of a Holt performance in college in which he threw 149 pitches with only eight being of the off speed variety. Even with his success as a starter in Brooklyn, he’s no guarantee to remain a starter over the long haul.
While I understand the Mets are built to win now, how does an organization draft eight players, six of them already being relievers, invest millions in them, and then sign an elite level closer? Maybe Minaya can do it now that he received his extension, but shouldn’t organizational higher ups be furious at the way these picks were essentially wasted when not a single one of them ever becomes the Mets answer at closer? When researching this article, names like Austin Romine, Andrew Lambo and Neftali Soto were only three of the many fast rising prospects the Mets missed out on because of this flawed philosophy. An entire piece could be dedicated to players the Mets overlooked in favor of bullpen arm after bullpen arm (hint, hint).
Yes, the Mets would have made the playoffs and may still be playing if K-Rod had been the Mets closer. In defense of K-Rod, he is easily the best closer in terms of age and success to become a free agent in years if not ever. If Francisco Cordero is worth $48 million over four years, K-Rod definitely deserves the riches he will soon receive. However, should he sign with the Mets, make no mistake that the move will be made out of desperation, and not out of sound financial and organizational planning. After shedding the contracts of Pedro Martinez and Moises Alou, the Mets are left with very few bad contracts on the roster. With less expensive, lower risk options available (See my prior columns), signing K-Rod is an unnecessary risk which could backfire in a big way.